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Saturday, May 28, 2005

The European Champions Rafalution

The spirit emanating after a half-time confidence-cajoling talk, the team played and flowed together to earn their victory. And as the victory celebrations continued, players and management, everyone associated with Liverpool Football Club enjoyed the whole moment, there were due to be two issues that need clarifying. I felt it would be only one, in the final decision regarding Liverpool defending the title this coming season, but there is another. Widely reported, Rafael Benitez needs, not wants or could ponder on, to disband the squad and filter who he believes hasn't impressed him enough from who has. And who probably won't from who he feels will.

The manner of the goals alone emphasised that something needs to be done, something now beyond the Melwood training ground. Marking at the edge of the box was non-existent, as the players occupied an area in expectation of a curved freekick from Pirlo, who instead played the ball into the path of an forwarding Paolo Maldini. Kaka was allowed to run and found Andriy Shevchenko running up on his right. That was down to Djimi Traore ball-watching and not focusing around him to anticipate danger. This happened far too often in the single match, much less in one season. AC Milan's third came on a rapid break, Kaka spun away in midfield and sent away Crespo. Little that could have been done about that goal, other than Steve Finnan keeping his tracking of Crespo instead of believing instead Jamie Carragher would cut the pass out.

The fans have been calling for the chopping of certain individuals, the inclusion of others. In some cases one wished Benitez would listen, others I'm glad he doesn't. At the end of the day I have had faith in the coach from his arrival, looking on his achievements with his previous clubs, particularly with Valencia. I didn't agree with certain choices, certain decisions made during the season but on reflection he is in charge and I have confidence in his vision. He has the intel available to him. The reserve side against Burnley in the FA Cup should have given a far tougher game than they did. The senior side should have performed far better than they have done in the league and at one point, or two, even Benitez was puzzled with what it was that prevented Liverpool from performing well, or alternatively that made them perform so woefully. Being optimistic, looking at Liverpool in 5th place, if they play better and concede much less, then they can break into the top and remain there. But crucially, new players are needed as a number of the current ones have seen their free paper burnt.

In my opinion, Djimi Traore, Sami Hyypia, Jerzy Dudek, and Salif Diao are strong contenders to be shown the exit. Traore has been better under Benitez's supervision and for 2004-2005 we were limited in our left-back cover, though John Arne Riise could play there in an emergency. Traore is tall and can play well when focused but his focus is potentially awry during any game. His own goal against Burnley speaks volumes. His tackling at times have been very questionable, more so than productive. He seems aware he is not installing confidence but smirks as if he is confident he will still get to play. He could have cost us in the final.

Sami Hyypia has given great service since his arrival, he certainly tightened up the back alongside Stephane Henchoz, but he was exposed for pace during the final and has been exposed as much in the league. While Carragher has pace, Hyypia is lacking in his and we now need a pacy strong centre-back as we have been threatened too often by the speed of many forwards. Mauricio Pellegrino has to remain as emergency cover, he too is too slow and unless he improves in pre-season, he must remain as cover.

Dudek made the saves that earned Liverpool the trophy. Jens Lehmann did the same in the FA Cup, yet while the German was sound in his opinion of being Arsenal's no.1, Arsene Wenger gave him a sharp jolt to remind him the position isn't that secure. When the players rushed to celebrate, Dudek wasn't completely swamped. He made good saves but could have cost Liverpool the game with two moments of not gathering an incoming ball as expected from a top keeper. His blunders have cost us previously, predominately against Man Utd while perhaps his best moment of goalkeeping came, ironically, against Utd in the 2003 League Cup Final. The Pole has great potential to be a fabulous keeper yet is another not installing confidence. Despite the efforts on Wednesday, I'm afraid Dudek has to leave. I felt the same for Sander Westerveld, who had equally not convinced that he was really suitable between the sticks for Liverpool.

Salif Diao arrived at Liverpool with El-Hadji Diouf after their performances during World Cup 2002. They looked promising during their first season that year, I recall Diouf's brace against Southampton at Anfield. But since then, particularly 2002, things went down hill after staying unbeaten for 12 games. Diouf had become more intolerant. Diao could fill in for any injured centre midfielder and did so when Gerard Houllier replaced a lame Steven Gerrard with Diao during the 3-3 2nd leg at FC Basle, but since then waned off. Bolton can certainly keep Diouf. Diao is unfortunately surplus to requirements.

The likes of Harry Kewell, Florent Sinama-Pongolle, Anthony Le Tallec should be given one last season to improve. Dieter Hamann could be leaving, which I would like not to happen. Vladimir Smicer has performed well for us, had a bundle of energy and skill and linked well alongside Patrik Berger (who shouldn't have been allowed to leave), and it's a pity he is allowed to leave. Milan Baros is another I don't want to see leaving. Along with Kewell, we have four strikers. If Baros is in two minds about leaving, I sense Benitez will convince him to remain for at least one more season. The thing with Kewell is, if he is given one more season, his prowess will have to recover very quickly to be productive from the start of the season. His lack of play will not be tolerated again. Saying this, we may yet see the best from these two after the inspiration of Wednesday night. They have witnessed how motivating Benitez can be.

I wouldn't think Benitez will wish to plunder the transfer market like a Viking invasion. He should be looking for a goalkeeper, a centre-back and a left back. With Gerrard, Alonso, possibly Hamann but if not him then Biscan, his plans for midfield should be adequate for now. Antonio Nunez, Luis Garcia and Riise, and if need be Kewell, are available to shore up on the flanks. Upfront, again depending on Kewell, and Baros, Fernando Morientes has good rapport with Benitez. Djibril Cisse seems hungry and eager to get back into the swing of scoring, so I hope for a pairing to occur instead of a lone striker. While Liverpool need to strengthen their defence, we also need to get into the habit of scoring more too.


Thursday, May 26, 2005

The European Cup Final 2005 - The Proverbial Game of Two Halves

What are the qualities that produce a match of excellence, distribution, highs, lows, and passion that enthral an audience, be they neutral or otherwise? Goals, near misses, skill, great shots, superb defending, last gasp saves....the list, perhaps, could go on. Did yesterday's final have those qualities? Questionable. There were goals, near misses, some skill but not much expected from such players with flair, not great shots but nonetheless they were there too, some good defending.....and Jerzy Dudek's double stop against Andriy Shevchenko in injury time.

It was a game of two halves, literally. The task ahead of the teams were daunting. AC Milan were the clear favourites, 6x winners and the stature of Kaka, Paolo Maldini, Dida, Jaap Stam, Alessandro Nesta alone walking out against Xabi Alonso, Jamie Carragher, John Arne Riise, Luis Garcia was for me formidable. In the air and defensively, Milan looked far better stacked, and on the field with Shevchenko and Hernan Crespo, the running of Cafu, Andrea Pirlo, Gennaro Gattuso, the writing seemed on the wall, as it did before the semi-final 2nd leg at Anfield. Harry Kewell started with Milan Baros, whereas I would have started with Baros and Djibril Cisse, not Kewell at all. His exit through injury didn't surprise me.

The goals were awesome from Milan. Conceding the freekick in 50 seconds, not one Liverpool player marked around the edge, Maldini steps up and scores a fitting volley to gain the lead. Too easy and very lapsing.

Liverpool should have had a penalty award when Nesta went down in the box and the ball touched his elbow but the ensuing counter found Kaka, who found Shevchenko easily once Traore remained ball-watching and the Ukrainian made his run. The ball across the goal should have been stopped, Crespo finishing well.

That wasn't enough, as Kaka once again skilfully twisted away and thread a sweet through ball to Crespo, Carragher couldn't reach the ball, Steve Finnan pulled up on chasing Crespo, the Argentinian finished with a touching dink up and past Dudek's left shoulder. Gerrard picks up and then punches the ball towards the centre circle in some despair. Liverpool had looked promising enough 1-0 down but when Crespo struck twice, we were hit for the knockout. Andy Gray said the game was "well and truly over." I was shocked, and begged for the half time whistle, Liverpool needed some respite.

But at this time, as I watched through the adverts, I felt we could actually turn it around. We did so against FC Basle, Rick Parry mentioned in interview afterwards that he too reflected on that game for some hope. We needed three against Olympiakos in the second half. And now, we had 45 mins to do it. It wasn't impossible, it seemed a very high task to complete. I would have even taken losing 3-2 but at least Liverpool must show some sign of fight to not give up. At least we would have come close, Rafael Benitez deserved that at least, and the fans, if not the team. We were 3-0 down and yet the fans were still singing, some were saying '4-3'.

What happened in the first 15 mins of the second half was something that wouldn't have been plausible on the cinema screen. Liverpool didn't look broken, down, despondent, instead they aimed to get at Milan. Key was the change of Finnan for Dieter Hamann and playing with three across the back, four in midfield, Steven Gerrard and Garcia behind Baros. Possession in the midfield for Milan was suddenly restricted but Gerrard's presence alongside Garcia inserted more energy and drive. Riise's first cross attempt was blocked but he tried again, and Gerrard stepped in and rose, unchallenged and looped his header past Dida.

Something, at last.

Two minutes later, Liverpool came on the attack, the linesman flagging strenuously for offside, ref Mejuto Gonzalez possibly played on advantage as Milan had the ball but Clarence Seedorf cleared it out of touch. Riise got it back in with a throw, the ball reached Hamann, he found Smicer and the Czech midfielder aimed a shot that skimmed past Baros and got a touch by Dida before going in. Liverpool had by now almost crept back into the match.

Something more, at last.

And then the capping of an unbelievable comeback. Link-up play with Smicer and Garcia found Baros in the box being marked by Stam. Baros' touch off his right heel went into the path of the oncoming Gerrard, who seemed very clear on to shoot and possibly score. But a slight touch by Gattuso brought the Liverpool captain down. Penalty was given, and the Milan players argued they felt a foul had occurred earlier for which play should have been stopped. Mr Gonzalez was adamant of his decision. Alonso stepped up, looking edgy but eager for the whistle, stroke the ball to Dida's right, which was saved, and then followed up immediately to strike the ball high into the goal's net.

We had done it. We had come back against AC Milan from 3-0 down to 3-3.

Yet while some may wish to have remained stunned in jubilation, there was the matter of 30 mins left to settle. Milan held onto possession, probing, going this way, that way, looking for a weakness, a gap, a lack of concentration in which to infiltrate, something they were still very capable of doing. Liverpool were tiring, particularly Carragher. The player emtypified the guts and fight that Liverpool had to get level. Dudek failed to easily gather a cross-shot from Cafu which prompted Carragher to convey some choice words to the Pole in order to better his awareness. Another ball across the box saw Dudek flap again, Shevchenko's shot guided away from the goal by Djimi Traore. The game from then ran out into a stalemate and extra-time, where it was still difficult to find a breakthrough in either side. And yet, as Serginho, on for Seedorf, teased down Milan's left, he stopped and crossed a curling ball that evaded Hyypia and was headed goalwards by Shevchenko, only to be saved by Dudek. The striker followed up with another effort that had more to do with luck for Dudek than ability, as the ball miraculously came off the keeper's hand and up, away from goal.

Eventually, the game closed to a stop, at which no more play would occur. The penalties would take place now, that which some refer to as football's Russian roulette. There is little that could be done otherwise, 120+ of football which has seen one side storm in one half, the other side coming back in the other. The two skippers flicked to see who started first, the two keepers spoke briefly to each other moments before in mutual consideration of good luck for the other. AC Milan were 3-0 up in the first half, to be dragged back to 3-3 and taken into penalties. It was truly amazing to watch and now we would have to endure penalties, as if we had not had enough tension already.

It was good for AC to start first, Serginho skying his effort as Dudek mimicked Bruce Grobbelaar's movements against AS Roma in 1984, on advice from Carragher. Hamann stepped next for Liverpool and coolly scored, Dida just missing the ball with his following left hand.

Pirlo stepped up next for AC, and Dudek seemed to be further from his line than allowed, but the referee took no action and Pirlo's effort was denied. Cisse followed this with a firm drive down the middle to make it 0-2 on penalties.

Jon Dahl Tomasson, on earlier for Crespo, dispatched Milan's first scored penalty to make it 1-2. Riise's effort for Liverpool was stopped by Dida, as Milan looked to creep back.

Kaka stepped up to bring the penalties level 2-2, as Vladimir Smicer, in his last game for the Reds, having scored Liverpool's second, followed after to restore Liverpool's advantage.

Arguably the world's best striker, I heard being said about him, stepped up for AC Milan's 5th penalty. Shevchenko, involved in a number of attacks that came to nothing, denied a goal via offside, denied chances via offside, struck a hard freekick that Dudek did well to see in time, much less save away from danger, and who missed practically the best chance to seal victory for Milan with a double effort in injury time, had to score to keep alive Milan's route to the crown of European Champions, again. He didn't seem at ease when he stepped up, but there is hardly a player who does in such a situation. His effort was sent down the middle, to which Dudek, diving to his right, stuck out his left hand and leg to deny. As a result, AC Milan were beaten.

Liverpool are now the European champions of 2005.

The back page of the Guardian Sport captures the moment on the faces of the Liverpool players, when Shevchenko's penalty was saved. Against the odds, against Olympiakos when we looked to be going out again so early, against the Serie A champions, against the Premiership champions, and now against a side who are one of the best in Europe, if not the best. We appeared to be destined to win, the coincidences between now and the previous wins. In 1978, Wales won the Grand Slam and Pope John Paul died. In 1981, the Royal wedding between Charles and Diana. This year all three events occurred again, and Liverpool were once again in the Champions League Final, and once again they emerged winners.

No, I don't see this as down to coincidences, it's down to having the spirit and bottle to pick yourself up and hit back at the opposition. It's called having belief. I had that belief for the second half because it could be done, it was possible, it wasn't down to money, it was down to effort and commitment going up to a higher level, making the effort to create and if fortune opens up for you, taking it. Players could easily let their heads bow, or pick up and give their best effort, at least let the opposition work harder if they want to go on to victory. Milan didn't play in those 15mins, while Liverpool did.

Talk of six minutes. After Maldini's opener, Liverpool looked promising until Crespo scored twice from the 39th minute, so Milan had their six minutes too, which is yet another factor about the game which made it an amazing game. Would I be saying these same words if Liverpool lost? That would depend on how. As I said, if Liverpool lost 3-2, at least that would depict a closer game than the first half actually showed. At least Liverpool would have scored their goals to give some chance, some hope, and then pushed for the equaliser that would have made the game more enthralling. We would have lost but would have done so with more passion, and therefore a better game to swallow than a 3-0 crush that could have gone on to more for the Italian side. The League Cup Final defeat was easier to swallow because of the scoreline.

AC's vice-president Adriano Galliani has been stated to have said he felt Milan deserved better because Liverpool played for penalties while Milan played to win, and that Shevchenko's disallowed goal should have stood. If these were his very words, the vice-president is in error. Milan may well deserve to win because of their playability but a win is gained not on merit of a team's play but on merit of who scores the most. It is about time now that such notions are firmly considered when in defeat. There have been games that Liverpool were clearly the better but have resulted in a draw or a defeat to us. Games are not decided on who is the best team or better team prior to the start of a match, it's who scores the most.

Yesterday's final clearly emphasises the point. At 3-3 apiece, Milan missed 3 penalties out of 5, Liverpool missed 1 out of 4 with one still to go. Milan were 3-0 up at half-time, did they need any more incentive to win? Even at 3-2, Liverpool were allowed through. Milan should have stopped Liverpool's creativity after 3-1. Shevchenko had his moment in injury time. Yet Liverpool scored the most, and now are European champions. Milan were the better team, without doubt, and I feel for the Milan fans as I would be inconsolable to see my team go in front so well to lost it in the end. I would look at our players and be furious that they allowed the opposition to infiltrate them like that.

Now Liverpool have won the battle, they know the completion of the war is in the hands of others. The club seek an answer from UEFA and the English F.A. as to whether Liverpool can defend the trophy this coming season. One association is passing the buck to the other when in fact, in accordance to UEFA rules and precedent, the F.A. should make the decision. The fact that they will appear to go back on that which they stated earlier last year on their web-site shows how hypocritical they are, particularly since that they hastily withdrew the statement in question. An official decision is due next month after a UEFA meeting in Manchester.

However, I've spoken deeply on this already. I'm happy for the win, and if we have to go into the UEFA Cup, so be it. The F.A. do not wish to recognise how Liverpool have yet again contributed to marking English football as a significant force in Europe, that is on their conscience. The immense numbers of Liverpool fans last night made the Ataturk stadium come like Anfield. Milan's touches were greeted as if playing at Anfield. We possibly outnumbered Milan's fans by ratio 2:1. Liverpool fans are now getting back their voices that made us the 12th man, something which has been referred to by a number of past players who have come as opponents to Anfield. Even in Istanbul, Liverpool supporters are in numbers. They, along with the team and the management, guided the club to a 5th European title, one which meant we keep the trophy in our cabinet.



Wednesday, May 25, 2005

What do Liverpool need to do to bring the Cup home?

All you Liverpool fans must be waking up this morning after a sleepless night where your dreams turned into nightmares and then nightmares into ecstasy. You are probably counting down the hours with vision of triumph, victory and joy. How many times have you visualised Gerrard scoring? Cisse speeding past the aging Milan defence? Carragher’s last ditch tackle? Rafa’s beaming smile as he holds the cup aloft?

I can assure you that the Milan fans have also been having the same dreams, and that is the beauty about football you always dream of victory, defeat is never in your contemplation. But something has to give, someone has to lose, who will come out victorious and how will it be achieved?

It is difficult to see any weaknesses in the Milan side, they are strong all over the pitch, but that in itself can be a weakness, never underestimate the underdogs.

Cast your minds back to last Thursday, for those living in the UK it was a horrible day, rain, wind, cold not the ideal setting for a game of football on a gravel pitch with stones scattered all over it. But as I cycled back from work I was taken back to see nine individuals battling it out in atrocious conditions . So I stopped and witnessed an epic encounter one side had 4 (team A) the other had 5 (team B).

Team A were losing 7-5, but I could see the determination on their faces, they fought for every ball, they tackled like their lives depended on it, they pressurised the opposition so much that they could barely breath. I could see the hunger and the desire, I could see the rage in their eyes they just never knew when they were beaten and sure enough all the effort and commitment paid off they won the game 10-7. At the final whistle, they were on their knees, they ran so hard that they could barely walk off the pitch, team B were totally demoralised.

If Liverpool show the hunger, desire and commitment that I saw in this game then I have no doubt that they can bring the cup home. They have to play the final like their lives depends on it.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Vieira's penalty equals ultimate justice

Don't you love football!

Last October, as mentioned in my cup final preview, a £28million dive saw Arsenal cheated of a hard-earned record unbeaten run. The injustice of that dive interrupted the team's and fan's concentration for a good couple of months.

The footballing gods must have taken note because they presented Arsenal with a cup final against Man Utd to secure some justice for that dark October day.

Man Utd played the better. They sat deep, stifled the Arsenal midfield, and looked to play counter-attacking football by exploiting the pace of Rooney and Ronaldo.

Arsenal lacked penetration by unusually playing five across the midfield with the left-footed Reyes playing out on the right for the first time in an Arsenal shirt.

This system was used by AC Milan and Chelsea to defeat Man Utd. However, these tactics neutralised our supreme attacking potential- Reyes in particular suffered- and the players simply showed their lack of experience of playing a five man midfield system.

If Arsene is to use this system in future big games he must give the team a chance to get adapted to it first.

Despite the struggle for attacking flluidity, the defence played immaculately. Ronaldo and Rooney would trouble any full-back and on the whole Lauren and Cole dealt well with their massive threat. Man Utd never breached the young Toure/Senderos partnership and Jens Lehmann showed again why the criticism he receives in undeserved.

Jens Lehmann's first 47 league games for Arsenal resulted in no losses. His belief in his ability is a great quality to have for a goalkeeper, and- despite some notable mistakes which every keeper is prone to make- he has shown time and again throughout his Arsenal career that he is a value-for-money purchase.

His performance was the culmination of the last three months where Arsenal have kept clean sheet after clean sheet. The likes of Peter Schmeical who appear to take delight in condemning the qualities of Jens MUST think again and use reality as their starting point- not blind prejudice.

Back to the game- Man Utd threatened but in 120 minutes did not create a clear cut chance apart from two Ruud headers. Arsenal's consistent policy of always having two men on the line for corners paid off handsomely- Freddie's reactions were excellent.

So the cup came down to the luck of penalties- at the Man Utd end with Man Utd going off first.

Lauren set the tone with a beautiful penalty which involved total concentration on the movement of the keeper before striking the ball in his opposite direction. His passionate celebration in front of the Man Utd fans were enjoyed by this writer. Lauren never takes any nonsense!

Jens guessed right in saving Scholesy's pen, and then it was a question of Arsenal taking it a penalty at a time.

In the 1999-2000 season Arsenal were knocked out of the FA Cup, the League Cup, and the UEFA Cup final all by way of penalty shoot-outs. The demonstration of penalty mastery by Lauren, Freddie, VP, Ashley, and Pat showed that Arsene's team has worked on penalty-taking since that season.

To win on penalties after the unjust penalty scored against us last October showed that poetic justice is alive and well in football.

Man Utd fans will rightfully feel that the better team on the day did not win.

However, Arsenal won by the rules, unlike the Man Utd 'win' last October which some Man Utd fans [not Abdul, but others otherwise sensible people who will go unnamed] showed perverse delight in.

Arsenal did not employ a systematic strategy of kicking the oppostion with the referee's complicity; and they did not dive for a penalty and then applaud its conversion with no contrition at any time during and after the match.

Arsenal won the cup by the rules and ultimate justice was done.... football is great!

P.S. Stop the press, I have just read a quote from Dennis Bergkamp that sums up this article:

"There is no doubt United were the better side overall. But they say things even themselves out in time and we don't believe we had any luck in our two league games against them this season, so maybe that is why we had some good fortune this time."

Sunday, May 22, 2005

United end season on a high despite penalty defeat

"Day light robbery", "travesty", "entirely the wrong result". This is just some of the emotive, yet accurate language, used by Fleet Street's finest and highly regarded television and radio personnel to describe yesterday's result. The fact that the FA Cup left the Millenium Stadium on the Arsenal team bus and not that of Manchester United will still seem astonishing to all who witnessed the match. That astonishment will also still be ingrained on the minds of those Gunners fans who have come to appreciate the penetrative attacking football that Arsenal themselves have produced and entertained so many with under Arsene Wenger's reign.

The tactics employed by Wenger yesterday still baffle. Arsenal' strengths are fast accurate passing with players making runs forward from midfield to stretch opposing defences. But against United, Arsenal playing with Dennis Bergkamp alone up front were virtually non-existent as an attacking force from the 15 minute mark onwards. But, even with the increased number of men in midfield, Arsenal could not contain the explosive pace and skill of Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo, and the bite and tenacity of Roy Keane and Darren Fletcher. It could be argued that as early as midway through the second half, Arsenal had settled for penalties - a damning indictment of a team as brilliant and mesmerising as they can be.

But credit where credit is due - Arsenal were masterly from the penalty spot.

Although Rooney was given man of the match yesterday for yet another virtuoso display, Ronaldo's efforts should not be overlooked. His was a performace of breathtaking wing play - one of the best in recent memory. The number of times that he left the Arsenal defence in his wake in a blur of stepovers and sheer speed was simply awe-inspiring. One can also only hope that Jose Reyes learns a few lessons from Ronaldo on how to take a few tough takles but pick yourself up and get on with things.

But, ultimately, as Alex Ferguson said, United have only themselves to blame for yesterday's loss. United have created and missed chances all season and it cost them dearly in the Cup Final. United can blame lady luck only so many times, but poor finishing has been United's downfall this season and Ruud van Nistelrooy and Paul Scholes were the latest culprits yesterday.

Even if United had beaten Arsenal it would have been a poor season by their high standards. But the manner of their performance and the grit and determination of United's play bodes well for next season. The worry was that United would enter next season with an inferiority complex to Arsenal, after their barn-storming finish this season, and champions Chelsea. Yesterday's performance should dispel that notion. United players should take heart from that - but also get down to some shooting practice at Carrington as soon as possible.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Henry leaves stage free for dream Dennis final

The morning of a cup final where you team is featuring is fantastic. The sense of anticipation is unbeatable.

But today, Arsenal are not just playing for the cup. Cementing a claim to greatness, and securing a form of justice, are also on offer.

Wenger's Arsenal has achieved two doubles; a championship win where the team went unbeaten, and another FA cup on top of that.

In Wenger's eight full seasons his team has not finished worst than runners-up.

This has all been achieved on a budget far behind Man Utd's, and latterly Chelsea. And it has been achieved through the remarkable transformation of Arsenal from a team focused on defence to one focused on total offensive football.

Wenger's Arsenal consistently plays the purest football of any other team in Europe. The recent masterclass against Everton deserves viewing on a worldwide scale. It was dreamland football.

However, there are many pundits who say Wenger's Arsenal are not a great team. They say we are a very good team but greatness is achieved by European domination or by winning a championship back-to-back.

Given that Wenger's Arsenal won a double in 2001-02 followed by an [unprecedented in modern times] unbeaten championship victory in 2003-04- both times playing supreme football- I find it difficult to accept the argument that this Arsenal side will not be considered as one of the greats.

But to cement Arsenal's case for greatness they need to win more BIG games.

Since the away win at Stamford Bridge in February of last season, Arsenal have played Man Utd and Chelsea a total of eight times [discarding the league cup and charity shield matches against Man Utd].

Out of these eight matches Arsenal have won NONE of them.

The record is four draws, three defeats, and one robbery.

This is a record that simply is not good enough for a team with the quality of Wenger's Arsenal.

Against this background, today's final is an opportunity for Wenger's Arsenal to show the world that aside from playing excellent football, they can beat BIG teams in BIG matches.

On the continent, Arsenal are viewed as a technically excellent team. But we have not achieved the intimidation aura of an AC Milan, a Real Madrid, a Bayern Munich.

To achieve this Arsenal need to do more than play glorious football in successive home games against Liverpool and Everton. We have to beat big teams like Man Utd, in huge matches like the FA Cup final.

This must be Wenger's team-talk prior to kick-off. And the players will fly into next season by fulfilling this test today.

An Arsenal win will also give the players and fans a sense of justice after being cheated at OT. After this match where a complicit referee handed Man Utd a win to break the 49ers record run, the fans and the players felt the cruelty of football in the biggest way. It took this writer a good couple of months to escape the cloud that rained on Arsenal that day.

The blossoming of Van Persie, Senderos, Reyes, and Fabregas this spring, along with the resurgence of Vieira due to the comeback of Gilberto, and the fact that Arsenal have conclusively shown that they can achieve without the great Henry, has made that dark day at OT a distant memory.

But the sense of injustice still lingers deep down. The fate of the cup has allowed Arsenal an opportunity to exert their own form of justice this afternoon, in Cardiff.

My player to watch is Dennis Bergkamp. He is an Arsenal legend. Dennis was choking with tears of satisfaction during the match against Everton when the fans showed their admiration for him. He has Arsenal in his heart.

Henry has left the stage to him. Play the greatest game one more time Dennis!

The FA Cup Final

Arsenal's probable line-up: Lehmann, Lauren, Toure, Senderos, Cole, Fabregas, Silva, Vieira, Pires, Bergkamp, Reyes.

Man Utd's probable line-up: Howard, Phil/Gary Neville, Ferdinand, Brown, Silvestre, Giggs, Keane, Scholes, Ronaldo, Rooney, VNR

Arsenal have become stronger towards the end of the season, the inquiry into the tapping-up allegations wouldn't have hindered much in Arsene Wenger's preparation, Cole is designed for the left-back role and holds it without problem. The England plays his normal game when he gets on the pitch, immaterial of off-field issues, which is why he is well sought after. Phillippe Senderos and Kolo Toure have formed a firm partnership in the absence of Sol Campbell. the former Tottenham man is back from injury but has to wait as the two centre-backs show little signs of incompatibility. The return of Gilberto Silva from injury has been a boost while Mathieu Flamini deputised, and Edu could still feature if necessary. Thierry Henry missing out was unexpected some 5-6 games ago, the Frenchman hardly misses a game, but Jose Antonio Reyes and respected figure Dennis Bergkamp have skill, vision and shooting power to compensate upfront.

Man Utd face replacing their two first-choice full-backs through injury, Gabriel Heinze and Gary Neville. Neville is a doubt and I expect he will be replaced by his brother Phil, unless Sir Alex is playing games and we find Gary Neville is OK to start. I expect Tim Howard to replace Roy Carroll, Carroll for me didn't look comfortable at St. Mary's last Sunday, particularly in dealing with the cross that conceded Southampton's goal. Mikael Silvestre fills in at left-back, Rio Ferdinand and Wes Brown hold firmly in the middle. I expect Sir Alex to want to have a firm, strong tenacious midfield that will create often and therefore stem any chance Arsenal seek to keep possession and build up from the rear forwards. Ryan Giggs and Christian Ronaldo have skill, pace and can cross well and I expect duels with Lauren and Ashley Cole respectively. Keane and Scholes clamp down on anything in the middle of the park as usual. Wayne Rooney is given a free role behind Ruud Van Nistelrooy to keep either Silva or Toure/Senderos occupied. VNR is expected to fight and battle his way through, as usual, against one or two markers.

This is, for me, the penultimate match of the season, as I look forward to Wednesday's Champions League Final, and you could hardly receive a better match as such than Arsenal v Manchester United. Identical to Chelsea v Liverpool this season, both the Gunners and the Red Devils have met three times and Utd have won them all, so revenge is in the air from the Gunners on a huge scale. Talk has mentioned of eagerly awaiting the scenes in the tunnel as Vieira and Keane come into close vicinity of each other, but for that reason nothing will happen. Simply, the last time at Highbury, Vieira came off the loser in a big way and Wenger is poised to ensure his players keep themselves focused on exerting adrenaline and energy on the pitch instead. Wenger has pointed out Utd's hard tactics on Reyes particularly, Sir Alex retorts that it's a physical game and Arsenal have plenty of players who participate likewise.

Arsenal's game doesn't entirely deploy through Reyes and if he is being targeted they could have used other channels to break down Utd. Wenger has stated the Spaniard is feeling stronger and will be able to withstand more physical contact than before. If Utd's plan is to hustle Reyes off the ball entirely, the likes of Bergkamp and Vieira will find other ways of utilising Reyes once he is in open space. But Utd's focus will not solely be on Reyes. Both teams have the ability to keep possession and move quickly, I sense Arsenal are better at it than Utd, so Utd could well be under pressure from the kick-off and will look to keep shape to snub out Arsenal's attempts to get forward for the first 10-15mins and then push back on the Gunners. From then on, the game will be tight.

Arsenal's weak link is at the back. Lehmann is their no.1 but still to be thoroughly tested and yet to establish his prowess in the league. His performance will depend on Utd's pressure on his goal. Lauren is usually reliable, good coming forward and can infiltrate behind the left-back to cross very well but if Utd are physical with him, his temperament is questionable. Toure and Senderos have an understanding but under firm pressure at close quarters either defender can be open to a mistake, which can be detrimental with the strengths and pace that Rooney and VNR like to threaten with.

Utd's weak link is equally at the back. Once focused, Ferdinand keeps cool and tidies up, no nonsense, reads the threat and uses his frame to defend hard, clears. My only doubt about him comes from his positioning for Chelsea's second goal at Old Trafford. Also, I'd prefer Silvestre to Brown with Ferdinand, the Frenchman has been erratic at times before but I find him more reliable than Brown. One could point to Rooney's temperament as another minus point for United but I'm not so sure for today's game. I imagine Sir Alex speaking to him in the dressing-room to channel any frustration through his boots, as he clearly did when he scored against Newcastle at home.

This is another encounter that is tight to call. Both sides have good attacking players and defending is of an above average level, but Arsenal have developed more flair in their play recently while Utd have hit a blip and seem yet to fully find theirs. I'm sensing an Arsenal win, possibly 2-1.


Monday, May 16, 2005

The (bottom) end of the Premiership 2004/2005

Where some attention had been focused on the top battle between basically the finishing top three teams for the title, the battle at the bottom was where the most excitement ended the season. Chelsea seemed destined to win the title after creating a wide enough berth between themselves and everyone else, and to have wagered against them would have been something comical. The battle at the bottom, however, went literally to the last game for the respective teams. None of them were clear participants for the Championship. Norwich were in the best position outside of the relegation zone, entering their last match needing a win to guarantee avoiding the drop. WBA were very unlikely to succeed, bottom at Xmas and therefore subject to the hoodoo, and same position on Sunday. The likelihood of any of the other three not enjoying a result was very remote.

I voted to watch Fulham v Norwich, switch over to Southampton v Man Utd at half-time. Norwich hadn't won away all season but I felt they would have really hit Fulham with a strong display because it was make-or-break, and it was Norwich who seemed favourite to score first, such was their initial pressure. Then it was announced that Southampton had gone ahead and this was after Fulham scored through Brian McBride. In the end, for Norwich to concede six without reply, the game seemed something Norwich wanted over and done with, accept they were not strong enough on the day, possibly due to pressure of requiring a win to guarantee safety without doubt, and prepare for the Championship.. That's not to say they gave in. They had the urgency in the beginning, but the pressure took its toll eventually why they not only didn't win, they conceded the six.

Robert Green and Darren Huckerby could be two departures, the former hit the England squad and the latter has featured very well for Norwich this season.

I was one of those who anticipated a Man Utd onslaught in response to their defeat against Chelsea and their draw against West Brom before that. Yet Utd conceded an own goal sloppily and it seemed Southampton may use the goal as a confidence boost to seek more. Henri Camara was playing well and Brett Ormerod was as good himself. Yet to allow Darren Fletcher to run forward without a player marking him, jump to meet a John O'Shea cross and score showed yet again the Southampton defence were ball-watching. Even then at half time Southampton were not in danger, another goal and they would have been in the forefront of staying up, Crystal Palace were losing, Norwich were losing and West Brom were drawing. Yet when Alan Smith was allowed to bustle his way towards the touchline and chip a ball across goal, I thought a Southampton player or even Niemi would fight to keep that ball away from goal with any and every limb. Ruud Van Nistelrooy was terribly unmarked. Camara had a chance to make it 2-2, finally succumbing to pressure from Rio Ferdinand and then Roy Carroll.

Harry Redknapp had a hard task ahead of him when he took over and he very nearly overcame it. He's a manager who manages with a lot of heart and passion for his team, and looks on hard work and commitment to succeed, being use to working on a streamline budget. If he remains at Southampton I feel he could return them back to the Premiership, given a whole season rather than part to manage there. Southampton have been in the recent past seasons one of Liverpool's bogey teams, and they can match the best in the top league on their good day. Camara will probably return to Wolves, Antii Niemi and Kevin Phillips could be possible transfer targets.

Palace was the team I felt would actually survive. I felt goalkeeping by Gabor Kiraly, some stern midfield control by skipper Michael Hughes, and Andy Johnson scoring would help them beat Charlton. Charlton seemed too weak to me to put a stop to their recent poor run of 6 defeats, 3 draws and a single win. At 1-1, with a nice equaliser by Dougie Freedman, the penalty decision seemed harsh to give, I didn't think Jonathan Fortune intentionally handballed. He had then been instrumental in gifting Palace's two goals. But for me, why did Mikele Eigertwood jump all over the Charlton player in the first place? Still, Palace could have defended strongly and cleared the danger but the resulting cross was met by no one other than Fortune, clearly making amends for Palace's goals. He was marked by Tony Popovic who alarmingly allowed Fortune to jump practically unchallenged, Kiraly coming out to no avail. How could Palace, like Southampton when Van Nistelrooy scored, allowed danger to happen in their box in such a crucial moment?

Andy Johnson could be leaving, he too, like Robert Green, featured for England and I believe at least two teams will make a bid for him, like maybe Portsmouth who have released Aiyegbeni Yakubu to Middlesbrough today, or even a short trip to Charlton. Wayne Routledge has declared his interests elsewhere, and looks to be engaged by Spurs. How Iain Dowie, who I believe will stay on, will replace them will be interesting.

Congratulations go to West Brom. I didn't think they'd get anything more than a point against Portsmouth but their nerves held, they scored well with two clear goals, the second coming after Palace went ahead. The footage where the players and staff awaited the final whistle from The Valley was great, players celebrating straight away with each other, the crowd likewise and then the home pitch swapped with fans in jubilation.

Commiserations to Palace, Southampton and Norwich. They took it to the final game and I wish them the best in returning back up. Sunderland have done it, Wigan have waited ten years to come up. Those relegated three with Premiership experience, particularly Southampton, have the capabilities to bounce back next season.


Friday, May 13, 2005

Troubled times at Manchester United

"In a dark, dark wood, there was a dark, dark house and in that dark, dark house..."

So begins a book from my childhood. But as I write - I feel the rhythm of those words echoing deafeningly in my ears as I assess the state of affairs at Old Trafford.

Manchester United fans have endured a dark, dark week, which has followed a dark, dark couple of months which has resulted in a very dark, dark season - with the ominous figure of Malcolm Glazer blocking out most of the light.

The acceptance of Glazer's offer for their shares by the Coolmore Mafia will, I'm sure, be a pivotal moment in the history of one of the giant's of English football. I have no doubt that Glazer will now acquire the remaining shares - his relentless pursuit of United seemingly successful.

As has been said by most observers, Glazer is no Roman Abramovic - his offer for United shares being funded largely by debt - debt which United will be saddled with once his takeover is complete. Glazer is a business man and wants to make as much profit from United as possible. Not only will the fans have to cough up to pay the debts back, but United could be the next Leeds - a time bomb just waiting to explode if repayments cant be kept up.

I'm praying that somehow Glazer's bid falls flat - but its time to take stock of what this new era at United will mean in the short term. The efforts of Shareholders United and other supporters groups will , one can only hope, have made clear to Glazer that fans are still a major influence at Old Trafford - and he cannot alienate them if the Manchester United brand is to remain successful. Glazer is also seen as a hero in Tampa where he turned the Tampa Bay Bucaneers from no-hopers to Superbowl winners. Transfer funds will be injected this summer - all United fans will agree that this is much needed. But even as I write, I feel I'm clutching at straws. An enormous sense of foreboding - of imminent danger - is all around me.

Yesterday's events have largely overshadowed a dismal end of season for United on the pitch. Outclassed by an under strength Chelsea, I will never forget the look of disappointment on those few fans who had remained at Old Trafford after the final whistle on Tuesday (however bad the season, the fans should have stayed) mirrored on the faces of the players. But I also saw a hint of determination in the eyes of the players - they know they will perform better next season.

The must perform better next season.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Wenger on verge of eighth successive top two finish

Mr Wenger never fails to impress this writer.

Approaching the end of his eighth full season at Highbury he selected a young team with a few older heads to take on the champions league finalists from Merseyside last Sunday.

It is a measure of Arsene's coaching quality that his team featuring many young and developing players were favourites for victory, and went on to achieve it with a strategy of total football that the Liverpool of the eighties would have been proud of.

Wenger congratulated Benitez and Steve Heighway before the match. After the match I'm sure Rafa was searching out Arsene to offer his respect for the style and manner of football that is consistently produced by Wenger's Arsenal.

Without the many millions that Mourinho and Ferguson has spent, Wenger is producing another team at Arsenal that is punching above its weight. Arsene's is the example that Rafa should follow.

The return to optimism at Highbury has been tracked on EFT.

The first article on EFT was a preview of the Bayern second leg. In it I focused on the importance of partnership's to the success of Arsenal football club. Since then I have written most of all on Vieira, Gilberto and Senderos. These players are at the fore to Arsenal's new found ability to keep the goals against record down whilst still retaining attacking strength.

In that first article and in subsequent ones I predicted (not a difficult prediction but one that Vieira critics didn't seem to be aware of) that for Pat to be at his rampaging best he needed someone he could innately rely on to deliver a defensive job alongside him, a'la Petit, Grimandi, Parlour, Gilberto, Edu. The return of Gilberto has proven this to be correct. With Pat and Gil at the centre, Arsenal's team is now geared to perform at the highest defensive and attacking levels.

Also in that first article I wrote that for the hugely talented Kolo Toure to be at his best he needed someone alongside him in whom he could have confidence in. Cygan gave him the shakes and consequently he self-destructed in Bayern. In contrast, the introduction to the first team of Arsenal's answer to Roger Federer- Phillipe Senderos- has boosted Kolo's game to the max.

Note the camera shots of Phillipe and Kolo in conversation before yesterday's match: Phillipe was issuing instructions and Kolo was responding enthusiastically. The body language between the two suggested they had complete confidence to rely on each other and that they were to be a team on the pitch. This has been the case game in-game out for the last two months. And they are getting better each game!

The result is a mass of clean sheets and Sol Campbell wondering when he can get a game. No one could have predicted this situation in those dark winter months of defensive frailty. But it HAS happened.

Springtime in London has coincided with the emergence of a younger Arsenal that is still capable of producing 49ers total football while looking more defensively solid than ever.

The introduction of- the just turned 18 years old- Fabregas onto the right-hand side is another key to the added stability. Unlike Freddie, Francesc never gets lost on the right wing. He is forever coming inside to support Gil and Pat in intercepting attacks and creating attacks.

Pat loves this! And the whole team is benefitting from Francesc's qualities. As a consequnce, Freddie will seriously struggle to regain his place on the right- especially in games against quality opposition. As stated in my last article- Francesc MUST play in Europe on the right hand side next season

Mr Wenger should take a bow. He is on the verge of completing his eighth full season: and each one will have seen a top two finish (subject to miracles for Man U in the last two league games this season) while producing total football. This is some accomplishment.

And the signs are that the Wenger mission is not close to its end just yet. His message to his young players after Sunday's match should have been this: If Liverpool can [reach a CL Final], we MUST.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

ITV don’t deserve to broadcast the champion’s league final

Four days later as I look back at the epic battle of two giants at Anfield I am still awe struck by the atmosphere that was generated in the magnificent Anfield.

Twenty minutes before kick off you couldn’t hear the loudspeaker. At the final whistle, Anfield stood as one and over 40,000 fans held their scarves up and sang the most rousing rendition of “You will never walk alone”. I could feel the passion that was reverberating from this famous stadium. At that point ITV decided to go for a commercial break, for me, this was totally disrespectful to football fans. It does not matter who you support, as a football fan, everyone is entitled to witness such passion.

ITV also did the same before the start of the game and the start of the second half. Then to top this off they had Terry Venables, Michael Owen and Gabby Logan in the studio. Gabby was too busy looking beautiful, Terry could barely string two sentences together whilst Michael was dying with envy not to be out there. As a team they failed to analyse the game in detail and capture the atmosphere of Anfield.

This was a game that needed great pundits and a great presenter, this was a game that would have been better presented by SKY or BBC.

In my view ITV don’t deserve to broadcast the final, I know Sky will also show this game, but not everyone has sky at home and AC Milan v Liverpool should be brought to everyone’s living room by the BBC.

Response to replies on 'What the UEFA is going on?'

I understand the expressions of annoyance from most of the replies to my blog yesterday, 'What the UEFA is going on?':

"You can thinly veil your self righteous with the odd 'full credit' and 'tremendous season for Everton' all you like. But to say that UEFA should change their rules just to accomodate Liverpool is quite simply arrogant. The Spanish FA chose Real over Zaragoza, quite simply because who Real Madrid are....No other reason than that Zaragoza were expendible."

I'm praising Everton for their performance this season, having been relegation fodder previously and now have leapt bounds to be in position for Europe's biggest competition. Because I'm a Liverpool fan, that means I do not possess the objectivity to praise/criticise other teams when I believe it is due?

"Did Brazil appeal to FIFA when they were told that they would have to qualify for the next world cup? No, of course not! teh just accepted the RULES and got on with it."

Brazil were not in a position of being outside the top four places in the World Cup. After the initial group stage, the progressive teams enter a knockout phase and are not in league positions. It is not the same as the Champions League, we're not dealing with FIFA. The hosts of the World Cup have the automatic right to play in it without going through qualifiers.

'Back where you belong' - did I include these words? Please point them out to me if I did, it certainly would be a serious error on my part as I don't agree Liverpool are back where they belong.

"....your comments regarding why Everton should take EUFA cup football ("Considering how long Everton have taken to even rise up the table, much less be in a position to experience European football again, after some 25 years, I think they should take the UEFA Cup campaign") are elitist and imply that you think Liverpool have some sort of right over Everton as their richer neighbours."

Please, I urge that particular 'anonymous' author to read my blog again and notice the paragraph beginning "However, Everton would be doing a favour for Liverpool....", and read on. I defeinitely do not differentiate Everton and Liverpool on account of their financial status.

"Redsman seems a bit put out at the prospect Liverpool of being excluded from European football through no fault of their own? Maybe he can empathise now with Evertonians in the mid eighties?"

No, not put out, that's wrong. I did say my views would be the same were it not Liverpool (paragraph that begins "I don't agree the rules are fair, and that is in regard to any two teams."

I now refer to the reply by 'mcefc'. The reference to Chelsea is incorrect in so far as Chelsea were in the semi-finals last season, therefore they had experienced the qualifying round, and the lead up to the semi-final. It couldn't be a case of them not being used to the Champions League.

If the rules are that Liverpool do not get the opportunity to defend, were they to win the trophy, then there is little to nothing anyone can do. The decision is final, and I, for one, adhere to that. Yes, I would like the opportunity but no one and no team are above the rules.

"thats [deleted] that everton be denied place in champions league!!if ever any team deserves to play in CL next year its everton for their stupendous achievements thr the whole of last year,& i'm an arsenal fan sayin this......its pathetic u say everton should play in uefa cup, its sick[though i want liverpool to win the CL this year]"

Again, I refer to my paragraph beginning with "However, Everton would be doing a favour for Liverpool...."

The majority of replies stipulate I am bias towards Liverpool, rules should be changed to suit my team since that I glorify them now they're in the final, and Everton should pass on to the UEFA Cup for our sake. The authors of those replies should refer to my blog and read it again, they would see I had put the point why I felt Everton should go onto the UEFA Cup, and then immediately afterwards stated the point why I felt Everton shouldn't. If I was bias, would I have done this? Even where I stated praise, I was criticised.

I am a Liverpool fan but I use objectivity when stating my views. I criticise and/or praise any team as I see fit, that shouldn't make me out to then be subjective.

There had been mention of the hope that Liverpool are heavily beaten, to quiet the voices of their fans in regard to defending the trophy. I've not mentioned anything in the vain that Liverpool will definitely win the trophy, there is no way I could do that. AC Milan are a reputable side and, owing to the views stated in a number of the replies, Liverpool's football has a lot to be desired. I don't disagree with those views, Liverpool's football most certainly needs to improve. Yet I am obviously in the hope that we do win, and feel it is harsh we cannot defend the trophy if we do. However, if the final decision states we cannot, that will be accepted and we'll move on. I said I would forfeit 4th place for a win on May 25th, even if it meant we wouldn't be in in 2005/2006.


Friday, May 06, 2005

What the UEFA is going on?

OK, let me clarify the situation: Everton are likely to gain something from their remaining games with Newcastle, Arsenal then Bolton. Liverpool v Arsenal is hard for me to predict. Wishing for a win all the same, and respecting Gooner TS, Arsenal are finding good form at home. Villa at home could be a good win. But Everton, despite their blip at Fulham, seem strong enough to get the results they need, so they are likely to hold 4th spot. Such a shame but Liverpool's inconsistency has been cumbersome.

Despite the possibility of winning the Champions League, being out of the top four places will mean UEFA rules keeps us out of next season's campaign. So much for the decision being eventually in the hands of our F.A. To reiterate that said by Sunil, and Phil Thompson on Sky Sports News, I'd forfeit 4th place for the trophy. It would be very cutting to be beaten finalists and not be in it come 2005/2006.

Personally, I find that the possibility of UEFA looking at revising the rules regarding these circumstances is scant consolation. Why 2005/2006? Why not now? Bring talks forward and make a decision, in such an important issue, at least for the fans. Evertonians want the big league, everyone wants the Champions League, by any virtue. But impartially, I say Liverpool, if they win in Istanbul, should be allowed to defend the trophy, and Everton go into the UEFA Cup.

Why? Considering how long Everton have taken to even rise up the table, much less be in a position to experience European football again, after some 25 years, I think they should take the UEFA Cup campaign. At least then they can use the experience if they go on in the season to qualify for the Champions League. Also, considering Liverpool have gotten so far as the final, after coming back from 0-1 against Olympiakos, needing 3 goals and winning 3-1, avenging our previous defeat by Bayer Leverkusen 6-2, and beating a strong title-winning side like Chelsea, it does seem harsh.

However, Everton would be doing a favour for Liverpool, which the Toffees wouldn't want to do, unofficially. And the difference in revenue between the two European competitions would also deter Everton from choosing the UEFA Cup. Why should they forfeit the chance to be in the Champions League, since they have been better than the others to be in 4th place? Their rise under David Moyes has been something tremendous, and such credit deserves the reward.

It is such a dilemma - Liverpool qualify as winners or Everton as 4th placed (what if Liverpool was somewhere like 8th place right now???). Of course UEFA stick hard to their rules, and that's fair enough. But why has there been loose talk of our F.A. making a decision, UEFA considering the revision, NOW, when the issue is still a grey area where the interests of both sides clash, as a result of their own respective achievements during the season?

I don't agree the rules are fair, and that is in regard to any two teams. Certainly the precedent of Real Madrid and Real Zaragoza in 2000 wasn't fair. Zaragoza earned their place and saw it forfeited for winners Real Madrid. Zaragoza get to play in the UEFA Cup but that was minor consolation.

The right decision, IMO, is to have an extra place available. Does another football association have to lose a place as a result? UEFA cannot reserve such a place at no-one's expense, such a high-thinking association as they are?

This is such a grey area why UEFA must be considering a revision, because it isn't simple for them to say 'Rules are rules - sorry, they won't change now.' It always seem simple to revert to rules when you feel pressure on you to make a decision that affects a number of passionate people. Then one can say 'Sorry, really sorry, it's not my decision - it's in the rules.' The sake of two teams who wish to go to perform in the highest football tournament in Europe are at risk. One wants to experience, the other wants to defend their win. Both deserve to go on to do so.

After Real Madrid/Zaragoza, UEFA should have looked into this possible circumstance happening again and implement fair rules on what to do if or when it does. The reality of this happening is very, very little, therefore I would opt for a play-off between the two teams. This idea has been mentioned on EFT before, and I feel it would be the fairest way to decide who goes on through to play in the competition.


Thursday, May 05, 2005

Liverpool's trophy

The following is quoted from the official liverpool website and I hope Rafa uses it to motivate the players for the final (as if they need any more motivating!)

"European football's governing body has confirmed that the Champions League trophy will be Liverpool's for keeps if the Reds can defeat AC Milan in this season's final.
Should Steven Gerrard hold aloft the continent's most glittering piece of silverware at the Ataturk Stadium in Istanbul on May 25 it will signal Liverpool's fifth coronation as Kings of Europe. Only their opponents in Turkey, Milan, and Real Madrid have previously achieved this unique distinction. UEFA rules state that when a club wins the competition five times, or three times on the run, they keep the trophy for good and a new replica is produced."


On a separate note the FA have decided to hand the final Champions League spot to the 4th placed team (we all know it's going to be Everton). I don't know if anyone heard Phil Thompson on sky sports news just after the Chelsea game but he said and I quote "I don't give a toss about 4th place now".

I totally agree!

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Liverpool v Chelsea

A number of comments had been written and said in regard to the possible outcome of yesterday's result, nationally and on this site. Jose Mourinho mentioned he felt no pressure coming to Anfield, Liverpool were under pressure to perform and win in front of their own fans. The Chelsea coach clearly saw it that Chelsea would be too formidable to be overwhelmed by the Reds and their twelve man, Rafael Benitez is a nice manager, but hasn't the players or enough guile to deny Chelsea from the Champs League final, and the chance of adding yet another trophy to their achievements at the drawing of this season. Our results have been fluctuating, to say the least, and perhaps even Benitez was puzzled as to why Liverpool displayed inconsistency in the League, especially where Everton and Bolton failed to capitalise.

After the Stamford Bridge leg, Mourinho mentioned he was satisfied that his side had gained "a very good result", that they will score and win at Anfield, progressing to the final in Istanbul. "We have got goals in Liverpool and they have to play a different way. It's dangerous for them.
"They play at home and 99.9% of Liverpool fans will be thinking they are in the final but they aren't and it will be difficult for them."

Chelsea scored one goal at Anfield, and I must have been in the 0.01% because I didn't think we'd got into the final at all after the 1st leg. Mourinho must have had his own MORI poll done on the spot. So he poured scorn over Liverpool's chances of beating Chelsea and going through. Couldn't be helped, he was frustrated Chelsea hadn't scored. But not downbeaten, he was confident of his side's strong performance come Tuesday.

On Monday, Benitez was told Mourinho has not stopped winning for three years. The ex-Valencia coach said "Until tomorrow.

Jose is one of the best coaches. He has a good team and he is a good manager so if you put together both those things you have a winning formula. He works hard and knows the game, but we will try to do the same. It is difficult to say if he is the best coach, he is one of the best, sure. He has a very good team, sure.

But they will lose tomorrow."

How a number of Chelsea fans must have scoffed at those words. How the team must have scoffed at those words too.

Benitez went on further: "We feel we have a good team, even if we are playing against one of the best teams in the world, they have spent a lot of money on good players. They have a lot going for them, but this is a challenge for us to beat them. We showed a European mentality at Stamford Bridge last week in the first leg and now we know we have our supporters behind us, it will make a difference."

"You need a clear idea against a good team, they have good wingers, a good centre forward and excellent midfielders, maybe it will take to the last minute but we can achieve what we want."

(It actually took the game as far as the sixth minute, of injury time.)

Those words may not have been of significance to Chelsea fans, but Liverpool fans knew their value. They were passionate words, perhaps out of some frustration after playing mediocre against Middlesbrough on Saturday, prior to going into a big home game against the best team in the league for a valued asset in a place in the Champions League final. But when he spoke, Liverpool fans listened. The value of the support at Anfield was underestimated. It was spoken of like an urban legend, Juventus can lay testament to that. Now you can add Chelsea.

'Berry' added a piece regarding the passion at Anfield yesterday and he was castigated by a number of replies. We at EFT welcome criticism and/or praise, we love to share views on the game immensely. If we're wrong, we'll stand corrected. If you agree, disagree or offer an alternative, all the more better. But some of the comments of yesterday spoke little of that and more of rudeness and profanity, so we gained little to nothing of supposedly contrasting constructive football views. Only one spoke out in his defence, understood that which was written. Albeit that one person was a Liverpool fan, but it took a true fan to understand that passion, or a heartened neutral who lives, eat, breathes, plays the game.

The game itself. The goal has been labelled 'inconclusive' by virtue of camera positioning yet the linesman gave it as having gone over. With the many cameras that Sky have at their disposal, why was it ITV could only muster one view in such a big game? 'Match of the Day' use virtual imagery to establish whether the ball crossed the line. ITV didn't have such technology available. Andy Gray would have dragged that moment from all angles to establish what happened. ITV let us down.

Liverpool's play was to keep hold of the ball, and their contingency plan was to stand firm in defence and not shirk from an incoming shot, get there first to shut down a player, ensure someone made the ball theirs whenever it came in, high or low. And we did a damn good job of it, obviously. In balance, Jerzy Dudek had a relatively Premiership performance to exert, he wasn't overawed with the expected avalanche of shots and close-range taps. Liverpool still needed to get a grip on their possession abilities, Chelsea had plenty of the ball owing to Liverpool's knack of losing it too often and too easily.

Yet while Benitez spoke passionately pre-conference, Jamie Carragher showed it on the pitch. Almost every and any ball coming his way was dealt with by him, and he was up against Drogba mainly. Even when big Robert Huth came on up front, Carragher was there to challenge with the German, clearing the ball. That was how much this game meant to Liverpool, right there, from central defence. That is practically the one thing Benitez was wrong on. He looked to Steven Gerrard as the talisman for the game, it was instead Carragher, rightly MOTM.

Six minutes of stoppage time that possibly came out of punishment for the two annoying persons who had Liverpool colours on, who came onto the pitch. But we did it, we managed to thwart the best team in England for a coveted chance in football, our first for over 20 years.

And then, like clockwork, afterwards, Mourinho poured scorn on the result. "What everyone was speaking about, the power of Anfield Road, was magnificent....[i]t didn't interfere with my players or my team but maybe it did interfere with other people and with the result."

"Bring out the linesman and ask him why he awarded the goal. It must be 100% in and he must be 100% sure it is. My players say it's not a goal. Other people say nobody can confirm it was a goal. Only one person decided the future of a team and of players who have never played in a Champions League final."

"The best team lost and didn't deserve to lose.....[t]hat's the most important thing I can say from the game. For sure. No doubt. It was a copy of Cardiff. They just defended after that and kept balls out. They did it well, with a lot of courage, commitment and enthusiasm. They fought to keep a clean sheet and were lucky."

So the linesman is to blame. The atmosphere of Anfield wasn't strong enough to influence against Chelsea, but good enough to sway the linesman. Sure, I'm happy the goal was given. Had it been Chelsea it was awarded to, I would have been furious, but then Liverpool would have had 92mins from then to at least equalise. Chelsea had possession, the players who could create and score, and they were"the best team", so why didn't they score? Quite simply because we kept them out. We wanted to win more than Chelsea, and we stuck hard to doing just that.

Luck had little to do with it. We got the decision, which maybe proven to have been the right one, but we still had to play 90+, and Chelsea had 6mins injury time from practically nowhere. All they had to do was score the once and they were through. As I said earlier, they had some chances but they weren't as frequent as you'd expect from Chelsea. How fitting was it for Gudjohnsen to miss in injury time, after he'd dived to get Alonso booked in the first leg?

I wrote last week, either in a blog or reply, that Chelsea's domestic form was so superb, yet in the Champions League they had come close to going out. I also said that where they'd wrapped up the title chase at Bolton, they may well be too ecstatic as a result to concentrate fully on the 2nd leg. I felt that they saw the match as a foregone conclusion for them, I got that impression after hearing Mourinho after the 1st leg.

Other than possibly a Chelsea fan, who would begrudge Liverpool a result after having come close on three occasions? Particularly after Mourinho's gesture to Liverpool fans with his finger during the League Cup Final, we badly wanted to win last night. Think back to when Clinton Morrison ridiculed Liverpool's forwards after the League Cup semi-final 1st leg at Selhurst Park in 2001, and was then made to suffer for it as we came back 5-0 in the 2nd leg, Morrison encapsulating the night by missing one chance twice, yards from goal.

Mourinho's 'shhhhh' gesture came back to haunt him last night. We'd have given up the League Cup Final to be in the Champions League version and we deserved it, not Chelsea. And we were reserved with our opinion of our chances of winning, unlike Mourinho. The maxim says 'He who laughs least, laughs last, laughs longest.'


Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Winning the Champ League – What will it mean for Liverpool Football Club?

Someone asked me what I thought winning the Champ League would mean to Liverpool Football Club. My first thought was how would the Liverpool fans feel when they see Steve G lift the cup. For Liverpool pool fans it would not be just winning the cup, it would be the beginning the slow healing process of years of tears and hurts. The fans in any football club should come first. They are the biggest asset you can have.
Winning the Champ League will finally wake Europe’s last sleeping giant and will take Liverpool back where they belong. For the past decade, Juventus, Real Madrid and ManU have been the top teams (from their respective country) in Europe. If a team was going to win the Champ League, they would have to knock out at least one of the team. They were the team to beat in Europe. During that time Liverpool, AC Milan and Barcelona (other traditionalist clubs), going through football’s natural evolution, were at their rebuilding stages while fighting to stay in touch with the teams at the top. While AC Milan and Barcelona have finally found their old self, Liverpool’s return among the elite clubs has been long overdue. But the signs are good. And winning the Champ League will mean taking one giant step to the glory days. But the press continues to ignore their achievement and dismiss their chances of success in this year Champ League. Liverpool fans are used to battling through the hard times and against all odds. The dockers’ strike in the mid-90s was a tough time for the people of Liverpool. However, when it came to Saturday, 3pm, Anfield (full house), all was forgotten for 90 minutes. The players went out on the pitch knowing it was not just three points at stake but the hope of the people. (Recall the moment when Robbie Fowler scored and removed his shirt to show his support to miners). A win meant so much to the fans and lifted their sprints up. Liverpool Football Club is not just a football club. It’s the life of the people (at least the red side) in Liverpool. And with their Fan Power, Liverpool will walk on.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Fabregas should play right midfield in Europe next season

As written in an earlier piece, the number one positive theme of Arsenal's season 2004/05 is the extensive experience gained by a number of awesomely talented young players thanks to injuries and a small squad.

Senderos and Van Persie are getting better game by game and have proven they are Arsenal starter's of the future. This is a big plus for Wenger, and in terms of Senderos relegating Cygan to number four choice centreback, is the plus that Arsenal fans have longed for.

(If anything can be learned from this season Mr Wenger, can it please be: No more Cygan. Just look at the effect he had on Kolo Toure who became a nervous wreck on the pitch when playing alongside Pascal- Bayern fans don't know how lucky they were!).

But the player that deserves most praise is the seventeen year old with the footballing mind of a 37 year old. In Cardiff for the Charity Shield, I watched on as Francesc Fabregas dribbled and passed with brilliant precision that had even Roy Keane patting him on the back. But I thought this would be a rare sighting for the young Spaniard.

Not quite, he was required for almost all of Arsenal's games up until December and the introduction of a rotation with the 20 year old Flamini.

With danger of burn out, Fabregas has been increasingly rested until the last six weeks.

Now he is back in the first team line up due to an injury to Freddie Ljungberg. Instead of playing in the centre, he has moved out onto right midfield.

Fabregas and right midfield may be the tactical combination choice of the season by Wenger. I think the solution to Arsenal's lost right midfielder in Europe has been solved.

In contrast to Ljungberg, Fabregas has consistently moved inwards to support Gilberto and Vieira in the centre of the pitch. The goal aganst Spurs came from Fabregas drifting into the centre and then picking out a fantastic through ball for Reyes to run onto.

Ljungberg has many strengths but the ability to be a playmaker in this way is not one of them. Moreover, its not Vieira's or Gilberto's strength to finesse through balls like Fabregas can deliver.

Ljungberg is someone who relies on the passes of others- he is not a great passer himself.

This is evident in games in Europe where Freddie often gets lost in games on the right hand-side and is badly ineffective as a result.

This won't happen to Fabregas, who from a right midfield position will move inside to support and bolster the centre midfield. In Europe where teams will come and swamp the midifeld, Vieira and Gilberto will appreciate the helping hand. The fact that Fabregas is the type of player who very rarely gives away possession is another factor behind his need in Europe next year.

Let me stress- first goal Freddie is very much rated by this writer. But Fabregas has showed to me that in big games his strengths are greater than Freddie's. Look at the Chelsea game where his ability to move and play in the centre immeasurably helped Vieira and Gilberto against Chelsea's three man central midfield.

I would look to accomodate Ljungberg on left midfield. This is where he won us the double in 2001/02 with surging inside runs onto though passes followed by a finish on his favoured right foot. With Pires being increasingly rotated, and Reyes 'doing an Henry' and slowly being converted into a central striker (this writer hopes Reyes convinces himself that Highbury is where his future should lie), the position on the left side is open for Freddie to get back into.

So there you go Mr Wenger: try Fabregas on the right hand side in the Champs league next year- with Gilberto and Vieira in the centre- and I believe Arsenal can at last realise their long overdue potential in European competition.

Moreover, as with the introduction of Senderos showing that Ledley King (very good player) is no longer required, the need to overspend on the excellent Shaun Wright-Phillips has also diminished.

Instead, the money can be spent on an experienced striker to play in big champs league matches (Govou of Lyon/Trez of Juve/Luque of Depor/Owen of Madrid).

Player to watch tonight: Sol Campbell. Wenger has to accomodate him sometime before the cup final. If he plays, will it see Toure shifting to right back and Lauren finding himself on the bench? We'll wait and see..


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